October 30, 2011

Tricks and treats

Merlin knew how to conjure both, but it didn't stop him from being evicted from his old Fantasyland magic shop. Trick-or-treat day seems like a great time to remember the wizard's little emporium that stood in front of King Arthur's Carousel from day one until 1983.

Merlin's was a dark but delightful shop, with an amazing array of genuine magical mysteries—often demonstrated by a highly skilled group of Cast Members, some of whom were also Hollywood Magic Castle members. Unlike its counterpart on Main Street, Fantasyland's magic shop was much larger. Along with standard tricks, and gags like spring-loaded "snakes" in cans of mixed nuts, foam rocks, and spilt soda cans, it stocked professional stage and close-up magic equipment.

The shop also showcased a playfulness nearly entirely absent from Disneyland today. Nickels glued to countertops or nailed to the floor. Rubber bugs strung up and hidden in the wooden beams of the medieval interior so the comedic Cast could unhook them from behind the counter and dangle them on the shoulders of unsuspecting guests.

As nearly everyone knows, the shop's funny CMs included Steve Martin, who worked at Merlin's as a boy. He recounts the experience in his book, which gives a rare perspective on an atmosphere that modern guests will likely never enjoy:

Merlin's was run by Leo Behnke, a fine card and coin manipulator who was the first person to let me in on the inner secrets of magic, and who endorsed a strict code of practice and discipline that I took to heart. But Leo had another quality that transfixed me. He handled cards with delicacy; there was a rhythm to his movements that was mildly hypnotic. He could shuffle the deck without ever lifting it from the tabletop: After an almost invisible riffle, every card was interlaced exactly with the next, a perfect shuffle. Then, with the elegance of Fred Astaire, he squared the cards by running his fingers smoothly around the edges of the deck.

Merlin's never lost that magic touch. What a treat it would be if it reappeared.